Deconstructing Depression’s Taboos
- Tim Laitinen Crosswalk.com Contributing Writer
- 2013 5 May
It’s been about a month.
Has his name already faded from your memory?
Matthew Warren’s name. The son of controversial megachurch pastor Rick Warren. He committed suicide in early April. For a short while, his name was a hot topic among us evangelicals, and our broader society at large.
But, at the end of the day, it was the Warren family’s private tragedy. The rest of us have enough problems of our own to deal with. Suicide is never pleasant or easy. Plus, life is for living, not mourning.
Which, of course, are all true enough, to varying degrees. Yet the growing epidemic of suicide – even among people of faith – refuses to be confined within our collective passivity. For a moment, when somebody from as famous a family as Warren’s loses their battle with depression, we take a step back and agree that, yeah, the church needs to de-stigmatize mental disorders. We need to bring the dialog about depression and suicide out into the open, instead of letting it fester in the shadows of misinformation, misplaced blame, and assumptions of its rarity.
Except rarity is a relative concept, isn’t it?
Suicide By the Numbers
Did you know that, since our government has mandated so many effective safety regulations, auto accidents no longer cause the most deaths by injury? Now, that ignominious ranking belongs to suicide.
In addition, suicide rates aren’t highest in our major urban centers, as we commonly assume them to be. Perhaps the people whose suicides we usually hear about live in urban areas, and that’s why we think city people are more prone to suicide. However, the fact is that rural America, particularly our sparsely-populated western states, a swath from southern Oklahoma through Appalachia, and northern Florida has the greatest per capita rates of suicide.
Oddly enough, these regions of the country are home to traditionally conservative voters, and where Protestant Christianity is embraced more readily than, say, Southern California and the Rust Belt, where suicide rates are comparatively lower.
Here are some other relevant statistics:
- In terms of age, the most significant recent increase in suicide rates is for people between 25 and 64.
- Males commit suicide at far greater rates than females, and white males commit the most suicides.
- Perhaps most significantly for Crosswalk’s single readers, however, is the reality for never-married, widowed, or divorced singles. Unmarried people in all three of these singlehood categories commit suicide at more than twice the rate of married people.
If anybody should be tackling this suicide issue, it should be us singles.
Depression, Suicide, and Society’s Dismissiveness
Unfortunately, suicide represents a severely taboo subject among people of faith. A significant reason for this involves the persistent conviction in society that killing one’s self is an unpardonable sin. So let’s be clear about this: suicide does not damn a believer in Christ to Hell. The only sin Christ cannot forgive is the sin of Matthew 12:31 about Jesus. In other words, if you refuse to believe that Jesus Christ died for your sins, thus becoming your perfect Substitute before our holy God, then you commit the unpardonable sin.
Suicide is “losing the battle, but still winning the war,” as some have put it.
Even if we properly regard suicide as a pardonable sin, however, many of us also assume all depression to be sinful. Both depression’s victims and scoffers usually assume that some failure of faith is the convenient excuse for not “snapping out of it.” And when medical causes do get linked with depression, its victims automatically become branded as psychotic and irrational.
Society won’t give depressed people a break!
After Adam Lanza’s horrific slaughter in newtown, connecticut, politicians and media wonks began calling for national mental patient databases, as if only one form of mental illness exists, and all mental patients were potential mass murderers. Fortunately, common sense has stalled this knee-jerk reaction and invasion of privacy. Still, the rush to a rash judgment illustrates how misunderstood mental illness is, and the ease with which many people accept the notion that its victims are second-class citizens.
Diagnosing Christian Counseling and Nouthetic/Biblical Therapy
Further complicating things is that depression can be mis-diagnosed. Having a blue funk for a few days is not the same kind of depression that can cripple an otherwise bright and productive person. Even being diagnosed with clinical depression, and fighting it for a season of a few months to a few years, is not the same kind of depression as chronic clinical depression, which can last a person’s entire life, and become profoundly debilitating.
Then there’s the silent battle over depression’s treatment being waged in many churches, para-church ministries, and Christian counseling organizations. This silent battle is between two well-meaning schools of thought. The most popular treatment involves conventional Christian counselors who employ a psychiatric type of therapy dominated by evangelical doctrine, plus medicine and scientific theory. The more controversial approach is called Nouthetic, or “Biblical,” counseling, which, aside from its name’s confusing insinuation of superiority, dismisses most conventional psychiatry and medical remedies in favor of theological analyses and confrontations with a patient’s sin nature.
Conventional Christian counselors generally worry that Nouthetic/Biblical counseling can be too simplistic, aggressive, and medically dangerous, while Nouthetic/Biblical advocates accuse Christian counseling as being too secular, ponderous, and tolerant. Adding insult to injury is the likelihood that churches and Christian media outlets wanting to provide helpful resources on this topic seem unaware of how diverse these treatment philosophies are, and either try to combine them, or inadvertently advance one at the expense of the other.
Meanwhile, unless a counselor of either the Christian or Nouthetic/Biblical philosophies has personally experienced rock-bottom chronic clinical depression, they’re likely not fully aware of what their patients are experiencing on a daily basis. Which doesn’t help them or anybody else appreciate the genuine medical, emotional, and spiritual challenges confronting people struggling with depression and suicidal tendencies.
After all, with genuine clinical depression, we're not talking about a condition that can be objectively diagnosed, treated, and even prevented like a broken arm or even some forms of cancer. We're talking about screwed-up chemicals in the brain, imbalanced to an extreme, for which a cure might be measured in stages. Artificial functionality achieved through prescription medications may be derided by people who don’t suffer from clinical depression, but for the condition’s patients, it can be the difference between life and death.
When Healing Only Happens in Heaven
For people suffering from less chronic forms of clinical depression, God sometimes sees fit to provide healing. Then there are some people who have a bad day, and think their melancholy equates to the clinical depression that ravages the spirit of people like Matthew Warren. And we’re dumbfounded all over again that people who claim to be saved act like they aren’t.
Something, which, by the way, people who’ve never had clinical depression do themselves every day, only in other ways, and with consequences that usually aren’t as permanent.
Or as demeaning.
Deconstructing the taboos helping to marginalize depressed people into the shadows of life – shadows that only exacerbate their problems – will go a long way towards demonstrating Christ’s love to them.
Praying God’s mercy on them will go even farther.
From his smorgasboard of church experience, ranging from the Christian and Missionary Alliance to the Presbyterian Church in America, Tim Laitinen brings a range of observations to his perspective on how we Americans worship, fellowship, and minister among our communities of faith. As a one-time employee of a Bible church in suburban Fort Worth, Texas and a former volunteer director of the contemporary Christian music ministry at New York City's legendary Calvary Baptist, he's seen our church culture from the inside out. You can read about his unique viewpoints at o-l-i.blogspot.com.
Publication date: May 7, 2013